The Bacalar Lagoon, also knows as “the lagoon of seven colors” winds through the jungle, telling stories of Mayan origins and pirate attacks along almost 42 kilometers long by only 1.6 kilometers wide.
The changing tones, thanks to the white limestone background of the lagoon, demand to be photographed. It doesn´t matter if you see the pictures on Facebook or Instagram, which shows the lagoon from different angles, at different times of the day, with or without people, the very best photography, is nothing compared to the real thing.
The unfortunate matter about all this is that, if people takes the time to examine these photos carefully, comparing the newest photographs with some older ones, they will find something sad and peculiar, those wonderful colors that, although impressive, look a little more blurred every day.
The most painful thing is to see tourists walking on the stromatolites, ancient forms of life of great scientific importance; as well as the already palpable pollution and black clouds in the sky-blue waters, ignored by couples, families and friends.
Today, thousands of people around the world talk about a magical little town. People in Europe, Asia or South America dream of visiting the lagoon and the town of Bacalar, located in the southern tip of Quintana Roo. At first glance, the Bacalar Lagoon looks like a miracle, a luminous flash of turquoise among a sea of trees. The “lagoon of seven colors” winds through the jungle, telling stories of Mayan origins and pirate attacks along almost 42 kilometers long by only 1.6 kilometers wide.
Sadly, its extraordinary beauty, its extreme “Instagramability and Facebookability ” and the fact that Mexican authorities care about nothing, could be its own ruin. What we see today, those images of a dream vacation, relaxed and carefree, in the not-too-distant future, could become only a reminder of a lost wonder. Lost through human presence.
The name Bacalar comes from the Mayan word “Bakhalal”, which means “place of reeds”. The city, colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century, is located up a hill from the lagoon and is spread out from a zocalo, or central plaza, anchored by the Fort of San Felipe. The town, which seems to be weakened by the humid heat of the jungle, remains solid and walkable; a coastal road, easily accessible by car or bicycle, runs along the southern shore of the lagoon.
Héctor, a Yucatecan who arrived in 2001 and never left again, explains to us: “Most people have heard that Bacalar exists because word has spread. Believe it or not, what distresses me the most is thinking how long will it be before we become another Puerto Morelos, another Tulum… You see, both succumbed to tourism and today they are not even a trace of what they used to be”.
Comparisons are inevitable and the most obvious is with Tulum, 214 kilometers to the north and as an example is its explosive growth. They both have a lot in common like their cenotes and “ojos de agua” (water holes) where you can swim or its ancient Mayan archeological sites (Dzibanche and Kohunlich) and, of course, that beautiful lagoon with its amazing and photogenic waters. However, Tulum today is synonymous of overdevelopment and crime. Before Tulum, it was Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos; and before that it was Cancun.
The rapid growth is already beginning to affect Bacalar. Every day there is a greater increase in development and infrastructure and the visits of tourists, national and foreign, are more and more constant. As proof, new businesses are opening daily around the lagoon.
Accommodations here in Bacalar range from hostels for backpackers – starting at $20 USD a night – to luxury resorts with rooms priced at $600 USD per night and above.
However, there is an even greater threat to Bacalar, it’s called “Tren Maya“. The project by Lopez Obrador and his government, that features 1,528-kilometers of railroad, seeks to connect the states of Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas and Yucatan, with a train station in Bacalar, and plans to be completed by 2023. With the arrival of the train, the relative inaccessibility of Bacalar — which now is a four-hour drive from Cancún´s airport– will no longer be an impediment for a more explosive growth.
“In the last two years, the market has grown its value by 350 percent” Ryan Gravel told the New York Times reporter. Ryan owns the “Buy Bacalar” real estate agency. “Bacalar is new, it’s trendy. It’s also the Wild West,” he pauses. “The ecosystem found in this place is very fragile. We could easily destroy it.”
Heroes come to the rescue… the environmental implications
Some, but not all visitors, stop to read the signs that explain the structure of the cenote, and highlight the presence of stromatolites which, according to independent biologist Shanty Acosta Sinencio, based in Bacalar, were the first photosynthetic forms of life to emerge on earth.
Stromatolites, formed by thousands of layers of cyanobacteria, secrete calcium carbonate. They look like huge boulders, but, in fact, they are living beings. Bacalar’s oldest stromatolites are between 7,000 and 10,000 years old.
“These organisms grow in very specific environments and have been discovered in very few places in the world,” explains Acosta. According to biologist Silvana Ibarra Madrigal, who works with the Mexican government as an environmental consultant, Bacalar is home to the largest known group of freshwater stromatolites in the world.
According to Acosta and Ibarra, the stromatolites, and the lagoon itself, have been visibly affected by Bacalar’s explosive growth. Much of the problem is structural: the town’s waste treatment facilities are outdated and have been overwhelmed by demand, causing drainage to flow into the lagoon, especially during the hurricane season (the vast majority of houses are not even connected to the system).
Garbage collection is irregular and waste separation is non-existent. In addition, tourists cause damage. People applying sunscreen before entering the water and riding on the rock-like structures trying to find a better angle for their pictures.
A big part of the problem, as always in this country, is the government itself and its eagerness to fill its pockets with easy money as soon as possible. That is why it’s locals give priority to environmental protection, showing more concern than the authorities. Add to everything there is no long-term planning and as it happened with Cancun and Playa del Carmen, it is a matter of time before organized crime starts to make an appearance.
Kamila Chomicz, an artist and biologist from Gdansk, Poland, has worked closely with the activist community in Bacalar, mentioned to the New York Times in an interview that there is often resistance to making these concerns public, so that tourists are not prevented from visiting the site.
In addition to signs that request visitors not to walk on the stromatolites, she has some fenced areas to keep swimmers away. However, many tourists ignore the barriers as well as the information.
A different kind of tourism
A growing number of local business owners are trying to inform tourists about the fragility of the area. The rooms of several hotels offer tourists printed material in the rooms that inform about the stromatolites and the best way to interact with the lagoon.
Fortunately, these materials exist thanks to Marilina Labat, a local designer who offered her services free of charge to the Ecology and Environment Directorate of Bacalar, a government organization focused on generating ecological awareness. Since September, the group has installed a large screen in the town’s zocalo featuring information on how to take care and preserve the stromatolites in Spanish and English.
Nearby, in El Manati, a spacious café, gallery and shop that provides assistance in booking environmentally conscious experiences, also offers environmental information about the lagoon along with lush artistic displays of stromatolites.
Kamila Chomicz believes there is a greater opportunity to bridge the gap between science, the local community and tourists: that’s why she organized a photo and video exhibition around the stromatolites and the lagoon last spring, and made a short documentary film on the same subject.
A more responsible tourist
This moment, undeniably, is a turning point for Bacalar. Work is underway to update the Municipal Programme for Ecological Land Use Planning (POEL), the first urban development project in the region since 2005.
The POEL will determine where developers can build, how tall buildings can be, and how many hotel rooms are allowed. The plan will also decide the direction of Bacalar and probably the fate of the lagoon, but it could be years before it is released.
Kamila Chomicz hopes that, in the meantime, tourists can help make a difference. “Limit your waste by using reusable water bottles. Keep the party in town, not at the lagoon, and ask questions,” she recommends. “Ask about the bathrooms: are they connected to the drainage system? How do they treat the wastewater? Ask your guides and boat operators what the stromatolites look like? How can they be cared for?
The balance between loving a place and destroying it is very fragile… In The Yucatan Times we have witnessed throughout the years how this balance breaks, as it happened with Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen and Tulum and it is with concern that we see what is happening now in Bacalar. Let’s hope there´s still time.
With information from Times Media Mexico/the New York Times/Infobae.
The Yucatan Times